Fear of the dark


Fear of the dark


your avatar   J (24 year-old woman)

I don't know if what I experience is a true Panic Disorder but maybe you'll know.

When I was a child, I slept with the light in the hall on. One night my father turned the light off when he thought I was asleep. I wasn't. That night I had the worst nightmare. I remember it today so clearly. It was the first nightmare I remember having. Now, whenever I am in the dark or if I cannot see behind me (ESPECIALLY IN THE DARK!), I freak out. I get a true sense of what fear is. The hair on my neck stands, my heart races and I have to immediately find a wall to stand against or find light. The fear is so real I start to cry if I can't find either. When I am in this situation, I am okay for the first two seconds of the darkness - that is until I start to think something or someone is behind me. I run to a wall or a light constantly looking behind me or walking fast sideways. It is strange because I KNOW there is nothing there but I cannot help but feel that way. The feeling is so intense it is hard to explain.

I would like some help, I can't stand feeling like there is someone behind me about to get me, even after I just checked the house and know there is no one there. If you have any answers or theories, please let me know. I was on Zoloft for a while for depression, but it had no effect on the fear of the dark.


    Margaret Burr, MA, MFT


Thanks for writing. Your question is pretty fascinating.

Based on what you described, I suspect that this fear is a symptom of an Anxiety Disorder and may be a phobia, but does not indicate Panic Disorder. In panic Disorder, a person has unexpected panic attacks and worries because he or she cannot predict when the next one will occur. You don't have this confusion; you know that being in the dark will make you "freak out".

Also, based on the way your letter begins (Afraid of the Dark at 24?) my guess is that you have some critical judgment about this fear, above and beyond the obvious inconvenience it must cause you.

This might be important, because judging yourself about having this fear might get in the way of your ability to have real understanding and empathy for you.

The dynamics of the situation, which seemed to create this conflict, are these:

  • You feared something bad would happen (in the dark), and so
  • you protected yourself (from the dark), but
  • your dad interrupted your effort to protect yourself (by turning off the light), and so
  • something bad happened. (Your first and worst nightmare)

In other words, your fear came true. Despite this happening a long, long time ago, your fear that being in the dark would make something bad happen - came true.

So, your fear makes sense. That doesn't mean it's something with which you must live. My recommendation is that you participate in ongoing psychotherapy for the purpose of exploring this and other trust issues you may have, so that you can feel more empowered and effective in your life.

In my opinion, the first step towards addressing this fear will be to acknowledge it for what it was initially - a self-protective measure. You were just a little kid who was trying valiantly to keep herself feeling safe and secure. You were doing the best you could.

Maybe, in therapy, you can get some help doing that more effectively and more appropriately, now.


Margaret "Peg" Burr , MA, MFT

This question was answered by Margaret "Peg" Burr. She is a California Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (MFC34374) with a private practice in Santa Clarita (near Los Angeles). She performs psychodynamic psychotherapy with individual adult clients as well as couples, teens, and families. She also runs groups for adults and adolescents. Her specialty area is Object Relations Systems Theory. This branch of psychodynamic psychotherapy uses a client's interpersonal relationships as windows into his or her intrapsychic structure.For more information visit: http://www.pegburr.com/


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